Switchfoot's Jon Foreman leaps off the bass drum at an Atlanta concert. (c) 2013 by Mark Geil

Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman leaps off the bass drum at an Atlanta concert. (c) 2013 by Mark Geil

I remember the day several years ago when the DJ at one of our Atlanta Christian radio stations snuck in a little personal commentary before playing what would be a bit of a landmark song. “I’ve been waiting for years for us to be able to play this next band. They’re my all-time favorite, and now you finally get to hear them on The Fish.” The band was Switchfoot.

That moment got me thinking, why in the world would AC Christian radio not play Switchfoot? Were they too loud? Too “mainstream”? Too obtuse? In their feature-length documentary called “Fading West”, Switchfoot plays a heavy metal festival in Australia. There is a scene backstage when Slash walks by, and the band is charming in their nervous uncertainty over whether or not to say hello. Tim Foreman confesses, “We don’t know where we fit in, and I don’t know why that is.”

Switchfoot is surely among the most successful of misfit bands, and their recent run of albums on their own lowercase people label has proven their versatility, growth, and critical acclaim (read: Grammy awards). The latest is the result of a year spent on the road doing three things, in Foreman’s words: “Looking for inspiration, recording these songs, chasing waves.” The band toured Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Bali, filming the doc and writing the album along the way.

With this backstory, two questions emerge: Will this still sound like a Switchfoot record?, and Do you have to see the movie to appreciate the album? The first question requires a definition of a Switchfoot sound, but remember, the band doesn’t know where they fit in. “Fading West” leans more toward pop than alt-rock, and it has some (surprisingly subtle) influences from the recording locales, but it’s unmistakably Switchfoot. This is a band that’s occupied the highest echelon of Christian music for over a decade, and they’re in fine form here. Regarding the movie, it informs the songs, but they certainly stand alone. The film is not too unlike U2’s “Rattle and Hum”, but if that accompanying album was a soundtrack, this one is a studio album. That said, I love the CD cover. Notice what the band members are carrying: a film camera, a surfboard, and a guitar, and they’re gazing west.

Two singles have already been released to different formats: Love Alone is Worth the Fight and Who We Are. Both are brilliant. Love is a capsule of all that’s great about Switchfoot: a driving modern anthem with an honest look at present reality and a recipe for hope and a future. It’s been number one on the Billboard Christian Hot AC/CHR chart for six straight weeks. Who We Are sounds a little more like the Switchfoot of “Vice Verses” but adds a beautiful choir comprised of the band members’ own children. (And who starts a song with a 5-count? It’s actually a paean to the five band members. Fantastic.)

Some of the songs will rock in concert (Say it Like You Mean It, Let it Out). Some make you ponder your past and your priorities (Slipping Away), and one in particular will give  your subwoofer a chance to shine (BA55). On any recent Switchfoot record, there are moments of lyrical brilliance, and I think these are part of what makes the band feel like misfits sometimes. They’re rock-and-roll surfer dudes but they’re, like, literate, you know? (I kid, but the point is valid. Preconceived notions of the band based on their physical persona would be quite wrong.) Saltwater Heart was penned in Bali, looking over the Indian Ocean, and it paints a powerful contrast between concrete and ocean as a metaphor for emotional and spiritual homecoming. “It’s an abstract thought, but I’ve been thinking non-stop about the fact that my body’s made most out of rain drops, with a saltwater heart.”

The World You Want wanders dangerously close to sappy (think World by Five for Fighting or even Heal the World by Michael Jackson). It’s redeemed from its syrupy predecessors by the context and the final verse. It’s inspired by and performed with kids at the Kayamandi Township in South Africa who have lost family members to AIDS, but have made their own worlds improbably joyous. The song escapes the potential secular humanism traps with a perceptive closing. “You start to look like what you believe…. What you say is your religion…. Who you love is your religion…,” and then “All your science your religion / All your hatred your religion / All your wars are your religion / Every breath is your religion.” The final sound – laughing South African children – is the perfect pointer to divine redemption.

All told this is a summertime album released in January. Maybe that’s appropriate, since it’s summertime Down Under, but I know I’ll have to wait a few months to play it extra loud in the car with the windows down. In the meantime, it’s an album to be enjoyed, perhaps, more than pondered. Switchfoot remain at the top of their game, and if being misfits means they continue to make records like this, I selfishly hope they never do quite fit in.

Notes:

Curiously, the title track for the album didn’t make the album. It’s a B-Side on the physical version of the EP.

On the day of the album’s release, Jon Foreman had an ironic and terribly painful-looking surfing accident. Witness his Instagram photo:

Foreman Instagram